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Puerta v. Newman.

2023 COA 100. No. 22CA2021. Remedies—Damages—Civil Action for Deprivation of Rights—Peace Officers—Standing.

October 26, 2023

Puerta called police and reported that he had been shot. Puerta described his assailant, the assailant’s gun, and the assailant’s car. Law enforcement officers arrested Wilson and seized a gun and a car that matched Puerta’s descriptions. Puerta later identified Wilson as his assailant. As relevant here, Wilson was charged with attempted murder. Law enforcement submitted the evidence for the shooting to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation (CBI) for examination only four days before the deadline for disclosures to the defense, so the CBI had insufficient time to examine the evidence before the disclosure deadline. As a result, the prosecutor determined that the admissible evidence relating to the shooting would support a charge for menacing, but not for attempted murder, against Wilson. Wilson subsequently pleaded guilty to vehicular eluding and was sentenced to three years in the custody of the Department of Corrections. Puerta filed a complaint against the Huerfano County Sheriff and various law enforcement officials (collectively, defendants) contending that defendants violated his constitutional rights under the Colorado Constitution by failing to timely process the evidence in the case against Wilson. He specifically asserted that he was deprived of his rights (1) to due process and (2) to be heard at all critical stages of Wilson’s prosecution for attempted murder. He further sought a civil remedy under CRS § 13-21-131(1) for these violations. The district court granted defendants’ motion to dismiss.

On appeal, Puerta contended that the district court erred by dismissing his due process claim. He maintained that by not timely processing the evidence, defendants deprived him of his fundamental right to see that Wilson was prosecuted for attempting to murder him. As support for his argument, Puerta cited (1) the legislative declaration in the Victim Rights Act (Act) located at CRS § 24-4.1-301 and (2) a prosecutor’s alleged ability to compel a sheriff’s office to process evidence under Crim. P. 16. CRS § 13-21-131(1) recognizes a cause of action against peace officers for violating a plaintiff’s civil rights, so a plaintiff’s case must rest on a violation of a right embodied in the Colorado Constitution that can give rise to a private right of action. Here, Puerta failed to cite any authority expressly holding that the Act grants him the right to compel the Huerfano County Sheriff’s Office to process evidence, and there is no indication in either CRS § 24-4.1-301 or Crim. P. 16 that Puerta is entitled to recover monetary damages under CRS § 13-21-131(1) for defendants’ failure to timely process the evidence. Accordingly, neither the Act nor Crim. P. 16 grants Puerta a property right that can support a claim under CRS § 13-21-131(1), so the district court properly dismissed the due process claim.

Puerta also argued that the district court erred by dismissing his claim for the right to be heard at all critical stages of an attempted murder proceeding against Wilson. He asserted that although he had the opportunity to be heard at Wilson’s sentencing for the vehicular eluding conviction, he was the victim of an attempted murder and thus had the right to speak at Wilson’s sentencing for that offense. However, a crime victim does not have the right to be heard at a defendant’s sentencing for a specific offense of the victim’s choosing. Accordingly, Puerta lacks standing to sue for a violation of his right to be heard at all critical stages of the prosecution, and the district court properly dismissed this claim.

The judgment was affirmed.

Official Colorado Court of Appeals proceedings can be found at the Colorado Court of Appeals website.

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